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Albert Maywood Courtright II

Reminiscences of Maywood Courtright

Our First Trip to Mexico, 1940

When we first met the Rambows, Avis (Mrs. Rambow) was a junior high school English teacher in Muskegon. Her first teaching job after graduating from teacher training in Iowa had been in an elementary school in Puerto Rico where she taught English to Spanish speaking children. She had studied Spanish in college. When Muskegon Junior College was organized about 1935 or 36, Avis applied for and got the job of Spanish instructor. She also taught classes in English and teacher training. I got interested in studying Spanish myself because of our contacts with her and the textbooks she used. About the only time I had for study was at meals so there was never much conversation at the table. All of us had books propped up in front of us. Spanish grammar and vocabulary is so similar to French that I picked it up fast, that is, I was able to read Spanish without trouble. To be able to speak it and understand what people were saying, however, I knew I would have to mingle with Spanish speaking people.

By the end of the thirties, Mexico had completed her first paved road from the American border to Mexico City and the Mexican government began a campaign to attract tourists. By 1935 the country was beginning to recover from the bad effects of the revolution of 1910 which had spawned a horde of bandits who even raided across the Rio Grande at times, as Pacho Villa had after he turned against Carranza. The new road, a link in the Pan-American Highway, ran from Laredo, Texas and was supposed to eventually reach to the southern tip of South America. There was a lot of publicity about it in the Muskegon Chronicle when it was opened and one day Yvette surprised me by suggesting that we spend the summer in Mexico. Avis Rambow had taken her two boys, Paul and Bill, in the summer of 1939 and had had no trouble. Yvette had studied Spanish under a private tutor while she was in Ottawa. A hint was all I needed. We started studying Spanish together and when the summer of 1940 came around we were ready to start for the border. We still had our Dodge.

The interstate highway system was not yet in existence in 1940 but all of the main roads were paved. We stopped in Peoria, of course, but otherwise avoided population centers as much as possible. I remember it was very hot as we were crossing Texas and an enterprising farmer had set up a metal tank, filled it with water, chunks of ice and hundreds of big, juicy watermelons. The youngsters wanted to stay there the rest of the day but the only shade was the windmill which pumped the water. At Laredo we had a room in a cabin - they were beginning to look like motels by 1940 - with orange trees in the front yard and we were permitted to pick our own grapefruit for breakfast, a new experience for all of us.

We didn’t stop in Monterey, the largest town on our way, but went right on to Linares, arriving there between three and four in the afternoon. Instead of going to the hotel, like most Americans, our smattering of Spanish enabled us to find rooms in a private house. It was an interesting experience, tho not the most restful place to sleep, as it was on the main highway thru town where big trucks went by all night. Our rooms were directly on the street. I could have reached thru the iron bars of our open window and touched anyone going by on the sidewalk. The house was built in the form of a hollow square with a garden in the center which contained a fountain, flowers, iron seats and trees. Before we went out to explore the town and eat supper at the hotel, the lady of the house, who was about 45, came with one of her daughters to talk to use, our first opportunity for a long conversation in Spanish, all about our families, our trip and what we might like to see. She recommended the hotel dining room. The evening meal was not served until 9 pm, however, and it was dark by that time. The only light was 15-watt bulbs with red paper shades. We couldn’t see what we were eating.

The second day we reached Tamazunchale (Renamed Tomas and Charlie by Americans) where we took a room in the motel operated by the gas station. Tamazunchale was full of Indians in white pajamas and wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying machetes, the yard long knives they use for everything from butchering a pig to cutting sugar cane. They could be used in a fight too, I presume. The Indian women all wore rebozos (long shawls) in dark blues, greens and browns in which most of them carried a baby while they balanced baskets of other things on their heads. Both men and women work sandals rather than shoes. There were no blondes to be seen anywhere. That night, as we were about to fall asleep, something began to make a horrible noise just outside our window. Yvette sat up startled and frightened and asked me, “What’s that?” She had never heard a donkey bray before. I don’t know why we hadn’t heard one before as they were everywhere along the road ever since we crossed the board. We had been warned about driving at night as burros like to sleep on the pavement which absorbs heat during the day and stays warm. All animals - and there many more than above the border - were free to wander at will. Horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as burros, were unrestrained by fences.

Tamazunchale lies at the foot of the Sierra, the mountain chain that forms the east side of the high central plateau where Mexico is situated, and as soon as we drove out of town the next morning we started climbing. The road was well engineered, however, and the grades were not steep. I had to shift into second gear only when I got behind slow moving vehicles. Even here we passed Indians trotting along with huge loads of pottery or other objects they were taking to market at the next village on their backs. It was wild, unsettled country for the most part and to prevent the few remaining bandits from robbing tourists, or perhaps just to reassure the tourists, soldiers were stationed in small groups every few miles. Once, as we rounded a bend, I saw a man in army uniform standing in the road ahead of us motioning for us to stop. Yvette was afraid he might be a bandit in disguise - he was all alone and had a rifle. He was a young soldier, however, who just wanted a ride into the next camp.

Because of the danger of catching a bug of some kind, we seldom ate in restaurants. Yvette packed a picnic lunch to eat at noon but it wasn’t easy to find a good place to stop. There were no shoulders at the side of the pavement wide enough to park a car and that condition existed for as long as we visited Mexico. When I finally found a place I could get off the road between Tamazunchale and Mexico City, it looked like the end of the world, nothing but desert and cactus. We thought we would be undisturbed but in less than five minutes we were surrounded by a band of barefooted Indian women and children who sat down to watch us eat. I have no idea where they came from; we couldn’t see a sign of habitation. Of course, we had to share our lunch tho Yvette warned that peanut butter was not good for babies. They may not have understood Spanish; they made no attempt to talk to us, only giggied when they tried to imitate one of our English words.

As American insurance was not good in Mexico, we had bought Mexican car insurance from Sanborn’s at the border before entering the country. In addition to the insurance, Sanborn made up a pamphlet for you with a yellow cover giving a list of motels, eating places, sights along the way, etc. which was a big help in knowing what to expect. The log listed several motels in Mexico City and told how to get to them. We picked one out a little to the south of Zocale, the big central square. We drove directly there, using the Sanborn map to find our way, arriving about the middle of the afternoon. After cleaning up, we went out the gate (the motel was enclosed by a high iron fence) and walked around the neighborhood to see what there was to see. That was what we usually did when we arrived in a strange place.

We were still staying at the motel when the presidential election took place. It was on Sunday and the voting was done in the streets. The incoming president, I believe, was Comacho but I can’t remember who he replaced but it might have been Cardenas. It was Cardenas who expropriated the oil companies in 1938. Even before we were up that day we heard police and ambulance sirens and occasional shots. The watchman locked the iron gate after crowds of men and boys began running up the street, shouting. Nobody could get in and nobody could get out either. The excitement died down in the afternoon and the gate was opened so Yvette and I walked down the street to one of the polling places, a round point where several streets came together. The streets had been blocked off and a table set up in the center of the circle with a big wooden box on it into which the ballots were to be dropped. Piles of ballots were stacked next to the box. The official we talked to told us that each party had a ballot of a different color, the voter only having to obtain one of the colors he wanted and drop it in the box. A company of soldiers were standing at ease some distance away and the side streets were filled with men holding clubs behind their backs. They all seemed to be good natured; at least they grinned at us when I took their pictures. Tho there is token opposition, there is never any doubt about who will win a Mexican presidential election, and there wasn’t this time, but there is an awful lot of time and money spent by the party in power, PRI, to make it look like a hard battle. The incoming president toured the country making speeches, kissing babies and meeting businessmen and farmers and every bare wall in Mexico was painted with the PRI emblem and “Viva Camacho.”

After we became better acquainted with the city we found a small apartment in an enclosed area - it was surrounded by a high brick wall with broken glass on top, a common method of securing privacy and security everywhere in Mexico - containing several other apartment buildings, many of the apartments was detached from the other buildings and had two stories. The second floor contained two bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and a big bathroom with the wells, floor and even the ceiling tiled. There was a big open space in the middle with a balcony overlooking the living room below. The rest of the downstairs was storage for the custodian who took care of the whole area inside the walls - he cut the crass with a machete - and a garage for our car. Two maids came with the rental; they cleaned other apartments besides ours, I believe. They would come early in the morning before we were up to start the charcoal fire in the little water heater in the kitchen. Their method of cleaning the upstairs floors was to dust the floors - they were tile also - with a damp rag fastened to a stick. Then they would lean over the balcony railing and shake the dust down into the living room. They cleaned the bathroom by taking buckets of water inside, shutting the door and tossing water against the ceiling and walls. They really enjoyed that part of their work judging by the hilarity issuing from the bathroom while they were working. Antonio, the custodian, locked the two iron gates at 10 pm and went to bed. He slept on a small cot near the east entrance. If you came home later than 10 o’clock you had to yell “Antonio” until he heard you and came to unlock the gate. He didn’t seem to resent being awakened at all hours of the night. He would come to unlock the gate all wrapped up in a heavy blanket with just his eyes showing, keys in one hand and machete in the other. He looked like a bandit.

Besides Antonio for protection we also had a “sereno,” a man who walked around the block all night long blowing a high-pitched whistle every few seconds. We were in a secluded area near Chapultepec Park and there was little traffic at night. It was romantic and reassuring to hear the whistle get louder and then fade away as the sereno made his rounds.

Mexico City was an attractive city in 1940 with few cars and almost no smog. I could walk out to the middle of the street to the south of us and see Popocatépetl and Ixtaxíhuatl dominating the skyline to the east anytime it wasn’t raining. Twenty years later Mexico City smog was worse than that of Los Angeles. The driving in the city was hazardous in spite of the many traffic police standing on boxes at the corners. The rule seemed to be; first one to sound his horn had the right-of-way. When a line of cars was stopped for cross traffic, every car in line started sounding its horn. It was bedlam to drive in the heart of downtown. There were no parking meters but there were plenty of parking places. As soon as you stopped at the curb you were accosted by small boys yelling “atchuca” (watch your car). Sometimes we used their services tho I don’t think anything would have happened to the car if we hadn’t.

A boy of Alan’s age lived with his parents and sister, who was 15, in one of the apartments near us and he and Alan became quite chummy. They attended school in the winter months, of course, and were learning Spanish. We were surprised one day when the two boys came in and announced that they had been downtown on the street car. They evidently had no trouble finding their way around. We sometimes took both neighbor children with us when we went sightseeing. The kids spent a lot of their time in Chapultepec Park which was just west of us.

Mexican markets were fascinating, particularly on important market days when farmers and artisans from all over gathered to sell their produce. Each village and region had a special day when not only the stalls in the market area would be filled but all of the nearby streets where tables would be set up with awnings over them to keep off the sun or women would merely sit on the ground with whatever they had to sell, a few chickens or turkeys with their legs tied together, not tortillas in a basket covered with a white cloth, oranges or other fruit always piled in little pyramids, ceramic ware - each region had its own pattern of decoration - leather goods, clothing, Juaraches (sandals made out of old tires) and thousands of other things. Everything was so colorful and different from anything we had at home that I wanted to snap pictures right and left. One day, however, as I was getting ready to take a picture of a man carrying a bed and mattress on his back I was approached by a policeman who told me taking pictures in the market was against the law and I would have to come with him to the police station. I wasn’t worried much but Yvette was horrified - likewise pretty mad. The police station was right in the market building. The police chief, or whoever was in charge, looked like a decent man but the place was full of bums and very dirty. I thought we ought to be as diplomatic as possible but Yvette was hopping mad. The chief didn’t speak English but there was a civilian there who did and acted as interpreter. Yvette told him to tell the chief this was the dirtiest, crummiest looking place she had ever been in and he should be ashamed. I was afraid they might fine us but after five minutes [of] consultation among themselves they let us go. We learned later that the law against taking pictures in the markets had been rescinded. The reason for the law in the first place had been to try to combat the image Americans had of Mexico, a disorderly, dirty and dangerous country in which to travel. The markets were certainly untidy but they were very picturesque, one of the things likely to attract tourists from the north.

Besides becoming familiar with the capital city itself, we visited all of the important towns within a 50 mile radius which we could drive to, spend some time looking around and get back home about dark. Once or twice we got home late and had to wake Antonio. I didn’t like to drive at night and I remember once nearly running into a dead burro as I came around a switchback in the mountains. I couldn’t have been dead long but it was already covered with thousands of zopilotes (buzzards) with others standing around waiting their turn at [the] table. It was on that same trip that we passed thru a swarm of millions of fireflies. It was like Fourth of July fireworks. Zopilotes were everywhere in Mexico, perched in trees along the roadside, on the roofs of houses and floating in the air. You could see a half-dozen or so every time you looked up. In small villages they were the garbage disposal department.

Teotijuacán, the ancient Toltec city which was just beginning to be uncovered and restored by archeologists, lies just a few miles north of the center of downtown. We went there twice, Yolande and I climbing to the top of the pyramid of the sun. The Pyramid of the moon was still just a hill of rubble. After our first visit we imagined we saw pyramids everywhere we went. They were the same shape as the volcanic comes which dot the landscape of that part of Mexico. On our second trip we continued east thru Tlaxcala to Amecameca, a starting point for climbing Popocatetl. Yvette bought a dozen brown and green glazed soup bowls in Amecameca from an old woman who was sitting on the ground at the outdoor market with stacks of them piled around here. They were not of high quality and I think she paid about three cents apiece for them.

We became well acquainted with the couple, about our ages, who had a small shop on a street to the north of our apartment complex. They kept a small stock of such necessities as light bulbs, thread, matches, etc. They were a congenial couple and were glad to have us stop to practice our Spanish when they were not busy, which was most of the time. I don’t remember their names anymore but we discovered the wife’s home had been Puebla, a town we wanted to visit, and she was planning a trip back to visit her parents. So we offered to take her. In Puebla she went with us to visit the secret convent. It is probably still a tourist attraction. During the revolution and for some time afterward all religious orders in Mexico had been forbidden to function as such. Priests and nuns were forbidden to wear their costumes and for a short time even religious services such as masses, marriages, funerals, etc. were not performed. This particular convent in Puebla had defied the government, operating behind secret walls in the middle of a large complex of buildings. Only a few trusted clerics and nuns knew of its existence. After the ban against religious orders was lifted in the 1930ies the secret convent was made into a tourist attraction for both Mexicans and foreigners. People like mysteries.

Cuernavaca lies south of Mexico City and is at a lower altitude so it is warmer in winter. It has served as a winter resort for rich Mexicans from the capital since the time of Cortez. To reach it, it is necessary to climb up out of the valley of Anahuac to the top of the mountain chain and then drop lower and lower. There is a four-lane, divided highway over the mountains now but in 1940 it was a narrow, two-lane road with no shoulders like all of the other roads in Mexico. I doubt that there was a level spot of more than a few hundred yards the whole distance. The Borda Gardens, where Maximillian and Carlotta spent a lot of their time when he was emperor of Mexico, were neglected and hardly worth seeing. Thirty years later when we stopped in Cuernavaca with Brooks and Cherry it was still run down but the old cathedral nearby was being refurbished with a modern glass altar. Borda was an Italian who had struck it rich by exploiting a silver mine in Taxco, a town in the mountains to the south. We visited Taxco on a later trip; we happened to arrive there during a religious celebration. We were always happening onto religious celebrations in Mexico, usually a celebration in honor of the Virgin, tho each Virgin was different, the most important one being the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her shrine is north of the capital about 15 miles and we visited it when we went to see Teotihuacan. The trip back to the city from Cuernavaca and Taxco was a long grind in second gear reaching 9500 feet at the top of the pass. When we went to Taxco we got home after 10 pm and had to wake Antonio.

Toluca, the capital of the state of Mexico - Mexico City lies in the Federal District in the same way that Washington is in the District of Columbia - and is 30 or 40 miles west of the capital of the whole country. A Mexican national park is at the summit of the 10,000-ft. Pass over the mountains and we noticed big pine trees similar to those we had seen in our western states. The Market in Toluca is noted for its woven baskets and other articles made of wicker and straw. It was a home industry but you could also watch women weaving baskets right at the marketplace. It was at the market that we met a group of girls of high school age who were studying English as one of the school subjects and saw a chance to practice. The school was nearby and we went with them to meet their English teacher then accompanied the whole group to the railroad station to greet the aunt of one of them who was arriving on the train - it was an ancient train on a narrow gauge track - I think from Mexico City. Then two or three of the girls took us to their homes to meet their families. We exchanged names and promised to write each other but I only corresponded with two of them, Elisa Garcia and Maria Cristina Reyes. We visited Elisa and her family and stayed a day with them the year that Yolande graduated from high school. Elisa later married and became Elisa Garcia de Madrazo. After her husband was elected to Congress and they moved to Mexico City I lost track of her. Maria Cristina was an orphan and she lived with a sister in an apartment house, a large building built around a central courtyard as most buildings in Mexico were. The Garcia’s home was the same style, with her father’s law offices, storage rooms, etc. on the first floor and living quarters on the second. At Elisa’s invitation we made a second visit to Toluca in 1946 and were given a tour of the house. Both her father and grandfather were lawyers tho her grandfather was semi-retired. He had a small apartment at the rear of the house. Elisa’s cousin Oscar also lived in the house. He was about 30 or 35 and was interested in radio. He had a good knowledge of English and it was mostly with Oscar that I corresponded rather than Elisa. He wrote in English and I wrote in Spanish and we corrected each other’s letters. There was no way to get from one room to another on the second floor except to go out on the balcony which had a roof over it. Elisa was studying piano and took the train once a week to Mexico City for a lesson. The grandfather was a great admirer of Napoleon and had statues and mementos of him all over the house. All valuables in the house were kept locked up and it was the grandfather who kept the keys.

Maria Cristina, or Cristina, as we called her, is the girl who returned with us to spend a year in the U.S. just after Yolande graduated from high school. She married Carlos Avila and they still live in Gomez Palacio, a city between Monterey and Durango. We stopped to visit them twice during the time we were driving to Mexico with our trailer to spend the winter.

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Last modified on 17 July 2022 20:18